Mastering the conversation

I gave this presentation to many of the Argo bloggers early in the life of the project. It’s about a fundamental inversion in journalism: from a media broadcast driven by editors in rooms toward a media conversation driven by ordinary people, living their lives. It’s not all high theory, though. Along the way you’ll encounter several specific tactics great journalist-bloggers use to master that conversation, from Andrew Sullivan’s “Sully lede” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ community magic.

Delivering happiness

Customer Service is critical

A telephone operator at the Central Office wears a portable headset made by the American Bell Telephone Company, 1923. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I’m almost always encouraged (and so rarely disappointed) that all it takes to turn a cranky customer into a fan is, well, just a little customer service.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of, takes the notion of great customer service, focused on building engagement and trust, so seriously that he’s built a business on it. Hsieg named his book, Delivering Happiness. Although Delivering Shoes might be more factually accurate, in Hsieh’s mind, it is the customer service and delightful experience that ultimately lead to customer loyalty (and therefore profits).

Let’s switch to online communities for a moment. The Argo blogs started from nothing. So bloggers had to write compelling content and be resourceful about distribution from the beginning. When you start with zero readers, you should realize quickly that you have to treat each one as a treasure when they do come in your door.

If you truly want to build a ‘customer’ base and convert readers into a community members, it becomes that much more important to acknowledge – and find an appropriate way to respond to – a ‘customer’ that expresses unhappiness.

Take the recent case of WAMU Argo site, DCentric. Blogger Elahe Izadi wrote a short post about Washington Post provocative columnist Courtland Milloy’s entrée into the Twittersphere, noting his caustic explanation.

seriously, the main reason im on twitter is to track millennials & find out if they do anything in dc other than party and gentrify
courtland milloy

On DCentric, soon came a response to the post from a commenter called, ‘SalParadise’:

Continue reading

Why I love live-blogging

The first time I live-blogged as a reporter was five-and-a-half years ago, when I was covering a solar energy conference for Almost instantly, live-blogging became one of my favorite ways of engaging with an event, and I’ve only grown to love it more and more since then.

“I ended up producing much more material for the site, and learning a lot more than I would have otherwise.”
Before I discovered live-blogging, I brought what you might call a story-focused approach to the events I was assigned to cover. That meant I’d go into the event looking for an angle I could start to report early on, searching for quotes and occurrences that supported my angle and mostly filtering out everything else. Under this model, if I decided early on that the story I’d sussed out was “Fresno solar companies criticize city bidding process,” that’s the story I’d report. I’d listen for moments that tied in to that narrative.

Live-blogging changed the equation. Continue reading

The thrill and peril of the one-night stand

The other day, a comment thread on CommonHealth totally lit up. CommonHealth blogger Carey Goldberg had posted a quick breaking-news item announcing the recall of several batches of the popular baby formula Similac. Carey wisely included a link and a phone number for parents to check whether they had one of the contaminated products. But as you might expect, the Similac site and the recall hotline were quickly deluged, and hundreds of freaked-out parents had no way to tell if their formula was affected.

So they took to the CommonHealth comments. Carey’s quick post became a phenom. It quickly garnered tens of thousands of views and more than 200 responses, with many parents posting lot numbers for the affected batches of Similac.

And then, just as quickly as they arrived, the rush of visitors was gone. Poring over the logs after the initial rush of traffic, it seems as though most of the visitors came from Google News, which must have flagged the post high up in its cluster of stories about the recall.

This is what I call “one-night-stand traffic” – intoxicating yet unsatisfying, over almost as soon as it begins. You can get hooked on that sudden rush, and many news sites do, tailoring their content to appeal to the Diggs and Drudges of the Web. But for a network of sites that are all about fostering engagement, what can we take away from these episodes? Continue reading

In case you missed it, CommonHealth kudos

It’s been quiet here the past few weeks, as we’ve been on the road. Today, I had check-ins with several of the Argo-bloggers after our gathering on the West Coast. There’s a ton of great stuff happening in Argo Land, however, and now that I’m back in DC, you’ll start hearing more about it. Meanwhile, though, I want to call attention to this well-deserved high praise from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for our CommonHealth bloggers Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman:

CommonHealth has sparked a very interesting discussion, which should be essential reading for anyone who read the Times piece. It’s an interesting way of doing journalism in the blog era. Instead of calling sources for comment, open it up to anyone who cares to respond. I’m guessing that even reporters as good as Goldberg and Zimmerman would not have found some of these fascinating responses using the old-fashioned tricks of our trade.

Much more on this very soon.

Gnoming for followers on Twitter

My co-blogger Tim writes and tweets about the history and future of media. If that sounds broad, I should clarify that Tim is very good. He’s one of the most well-read people I know and he’s got dizzying pattern recognition. The word my also-brilliant other-co-blogger Robin most often uses to describe Tim’s work is “magisterial.”

Tim has a good sense of others in the Webosphere who share some of his particular fascinations and obsessions, and he found that several of those folks weren’t following him. So, to remedy this, he asked them to. And here’s how that played out: Continue reading

Blogger-rhythms: how to develop your blog’s pace

STOP: Before you read this post, I’d like to ask you to read my co-blogger Robin’s mini-treatise on the concept of “stock and flow.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Maurese Polizio.

OK, now that you’re back, let’s talk about the rhythm of the blog.

I like to think about this rhythm in two dimensions: 1) audience patterns and 2) blogger patterns. I’ll talk about them in that order:

I. Audience patterns

Any Web editor with an eye on her stats knows that there are ebbs and flows in her users’ attention. Digital news editors tend to see a prominent spike first thing in the morning, as their users are rising for work and getting booted up for the day, another spike toward the lunch hour, perhaps a mild crest in the mid-afternoon, and some post-work, early-evening traffic to cap off the day. Widen the lens a bit, and you find that traffic tends to surge during the work week and settle over the weekends.

I’ve heard evidence that these patterns are evening out a little as people’s Web reading habits migrate to phones and other devices, allowing them to sneak in some surfing while they’re waiting in line for a mid-morning coffee or waiting for dinner to cook. Also, Twitter and Facebook are often up in the background as folks work at their computers, making it likelier than ever that a post might go viral in the middle of the day. And these patterns shift, of course, according to the location, focus and demographic of the site. Traffic to the arts and entertainment site I launched in Minnesota started to rise as the weekend drew closer, often hitting its peak on Friday in the late afternoon.

Whatever the rhythm of your crowd might be, you’ll discover that one exists, and it’s typically a good idea to accommodate that rhythm, to some extent. On newsier blogs, it’s standard practice to try to have some good meaty posts ready to go when your first users fire up the site in the morning – typically including a morning link roundup. Many bloggers indulge their crowd’s loopier side as the lunch hour approaches, posting fun YouTube videos or opening up threads for free discussion. In the afternoon, people often surf around for quick, digestible info-nuggets, an impulse bloggers often satisfy with more quick-hit content – following up a morning link with an excerpt and some additional insight, writing a few grafs on an interesting news development that day, calling to the crowd to share information that will be processed into a post later in the week, etc.

What’s important is to pay attention. Once you start to acquire an audience, observe their appetites. Note times and days when you achieve reactions you like. Test out earlier and earlier post times for a morning link roundup and see if you detect an uptick worth shifting your day.

Coming tomorrow: The blogger’s pattern.

Developing categories

Image courtesy of Flickr user OZinOH.

We put a metric ton of thought into the best ways of organizing content on the Argo sites, considering a vast variety of approaches and taking into account the content plans and user persona information that stations provided us. We knew early on as we started talking through this material that we generally wanted to target several discrete groups of users who’d be interested in different dimensions of the topic.

Many topics, for example, have what I’d call an industry community – people whose livelihoods are directly related to the subject. Many also have an academic community – a crowd of wonks and researchers studying related matters. Then there’s the legislative and political community – the folks making and advocating for policies. And of course, what I’d call the cultural community – those whose interest in the topic takes a more personal or social bent. This isn’t one-size-fits-all – these communities break down in different ways for different topics, and some topics have an altogether different set of interests. But as we realized we had these diverse audience needs, we decided we should keep high-level navigation that addressed them. Hence, categories.

I tell this story because I think these are the first questions our bloggers should answer as they develop their content plans for their site: Who are the four or five main audiences that you’d like to convene on the topic, and what dimensions of the topic are they most interested in?

The answer to these questions will form the spine of a solid content plan. Every day, we’ll want to be producing and curating content and sparking discussions that target each of these audiences. Each week, we should be planning at least one post intended for some viral pickup among these communities. And these four or five audience needs will drive the high-level navigation for the site, e.g. “Business,” “Politics,” “Research,” “Culture.”

The blogger’s first month

Flickr photo courtesy of user Joe Lanman.

It’s rare that a beat reporter for a daily news operation gets the luxury of having weeks before the first story has to be filed for the public. But that’s the lucky circumstance our Argo-bloggers will find themselves in. It’s our responsibility to help them use that time as productively as they can.

Over the next week, I’ll be writing more about the things I hope to see the blogger tackle in that time, but for now, let me summarize those tasks in four broad and overlapping buckets:

1. Content planning

This is probably the most important thing the blogger will do during the pre-launch period. We’ll need to nail down the key audiences we hope to reach (much of which will have been determined beforehand) and plan content accordingly. An important element of the content plan will be the long-term planning – developing the long-running stories that we’ll be returning to all throughout the first year of the blog. We’ll also want to engineer content at the ground level – reporting and producing some feature-length posts that we expect will be viral hooks for various audiences at launch. For a good chunk of the pre-launch period, the blogger should be producing a flow of regular daily content to populate the site, a sort of dress rehearsal for the live performance. And I hope every blogger takes the time during this stretch to conduct a photowalk of the beat, generating a solid repository of free-and-clear imagery that will be useful over time.

2. Network building

From the get-go, the blogger will want to begin pulling together the social media network that will be essential to story-finding and story promotion. This will mean finding the places and people on the Web to pull into the RSS reader, to promote content to, and to participate in conversations with. This network will be represented on the site in a number of ways, which leads me to the next component …

3. System setup

All the work the blogger does to plan content and build a network will be reflected somehow on the final site. An essential piece of the first 30 days of the blogger’s workflow will be using the platform we’ve built to populate the site. Content planning will play into the creation of topic pages through an admin interface that we’re developing. The network of sites and Twitter users the blogger finds relevant will be crawled for links that will be aggregated on our topic pages and elsewhere on the Argo site. Throughout this process, the blogger will be using the Argo platform, hopefully identifying any rough spots or workflow kinks that we can smooth out before showtime.

4. Orientation

It’s important that the bloggers get to know not only their beats, but also their stations. We want to empower them to take advantage of their station infrastructure, so we’ll have to give them a chance to get familiar with it. They should sit in on pertinent meetings, embed with reporters and producers, and procure access to any relevant internal mailing lists and collaboration sites. Before the bloggers are on board, the Argo editors should spend time thinking about the best ways to ensure that work being done for the site is taking advantage of work being done elsewhere at the station, and vice-versa.

I’ll write in more detail about all of these elements in the days to come. In the meantime, enjoy your Memorial Day weekends!

Dark secret of blogging #7: Comments are content.

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates values his comments as much as his own insight.

This isn’t controversial anymore. We know that a strong community is a huge asset for any site. And as I mentioned previously, the Argo-blogger’s use of her crowd is going to be an essential component of her site’s success. But if we accept that comments are content (or more accurately, that community is content), what does that actually imply?

Answer: It implies we treat comments as content. And what are some of the things we do for content?

Content gets assigned.

Bloggers who’ve put in the investment to build a strong community can use their community as a tool to further their reporting. The image that illustrates this post is a feature from the blog of one of the best community managers I know, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Every week or so, he writes a post called “Talk to me like I’m stupid.” In it, he asks his community to offer their best explanations of a concept he’s struggled to understand (how do nuclear bombs work? what are financial derivatives all about?). Then he chooses a winning explanation to highlight. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum sometimes employs the same tactic. Lifehacker’s Hive Five is another spin on the technique.

Assigning stories to the community is Crowdsourcing 101, of course. Talking Points Memo showed us how this was done, and won a Polk Award for the deed. ProPublica continues to carry the torch, using a distributed crowd to dig into big stories. But I start with the Ta-Nehisi Coates example to demonstrate that you don’t need the excuse of a giant investigation to take advantage of the wisdom of your crowd.

Content gets curated and promoted.

Remember that part about how Ta-Nehisi Coates follows up his content assignments by actually highlighting the best comment as a post on his blog? In the beat-blogging world, we call this “hoisting” comments. Making the voice of the crowd a clear part of the main stream of content on the site is an excellent way to reward participation and encourage more of it. And crucially, it’s often great content in its own right, regardless of its origins.

Content gets edited.

Years ago, online editors used to shirk responsibility for their comments sections with what I call the “‘Thar be dragons’ dodge.” As NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton describes it:

They say “the lawyers” tell them they can’t edit out an obscenity or remove a rude or abusive post without bringing massive legal liability upon themselves — and that the only solutions are to either have a Wild West, anything-goes comments policy or to not have comments in the first place.

That’s not true,” Benton goes on to explain, “and hasn’t been true since 1996.” (Read that whole article for a well-informed, super-readable summary of the relevant case-law that permits you to rule your comments with a heavy hand without adopting legal responsibility for the comments you leave behind.

A great discussion online is a well-pruned discussion. The single most notable thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ relationship with his community is that he’s right in there, in the thick of those comment threads, mixing it up with his community, setting the direction and tone of the conversation, removing unhelpful contributions and encouraging helpful ones – all the stuff an editor does. Go back to the end of that first “Talk to me like I’m stupid” post I linked above and check out his update:

Guys, I’m going to prune the comments just a bit. No one’s said anything offensive. But these threads tend to go long. I want people to have to press “Load More Comments” as little as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience. No disrespect is intended.

!!! He went and deleted perfectly inoffensive comments, because he wanted to up the signal-to-noise ratio in the conversation! He edited the discussion. Did you know you could do that?

All the best communities I’ve seen online involve editors who don’t hesitate to remove whatever they don’t find value in. I like the convention they’ve developed on MetaFilter – when editors delete comments, they leave behind a little bracketed note to the community; e.g. “[few comments removed - please act like you like this place]

On occasion, I’ve described our ideal Argo-bloggers as being activist community managers. But I’m starting to think the label “community manager” leaves something to be desired. “Community editor,” and all it implies, might be more apropos.